Great Britain Between the World Wars
Christie published her first works in the years shortly after World War I. This period was one of relative peace and prosperity in Great Britain, since the country was not directly affected by warfare in the same way as many other European countries. However, the horrors of war most definitely made an impression upon the sensibility of the British people. This opened the door for modernism in Britain, in which writers rejected traditional styles and forms in favor of experimentation. Writers such as Virginia Woolf and T. S. Eliot revolutionized the way literature was created and interpreted with works that attempted to express the brutal realities of modern life and the inner workings of a character’s mind. The end of war also once again opened up the borders between the nations of Europe, allowing for greater economic and cultural interaction.
Another important factor in Britain’s evolution at this time was the trend toward independent rule for areas held as British territories. During World War I, soldiers from the many dominions once under full control of the British Empire—including Australia and India—helped to fight for the Allied cause against the Axis Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire. After the war, many citizens of these dominions pressed for greater independence from Great Britain. This led to the Statute of Westminster in 1931, which allowed greater freedom of government for Australia, Ireland, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa. Independence for India and Nigeria, both still held as British possession, was still decades away.
The Rise of Genre Fiction
Even as modernism was changing the face of literature in the 1920s, genre fiction was exploding in popularity among English and American readers. Genre fiction generally refers to stories that adhere to a certain type of formula or common setting, such as mystery tales or science fiction. Genre fiction began to rise in popularity during the latter half of the nineteenth century, when inexpensive publishing methods allowed for the creation of many new periodicals that catered to all sorts of interests. Many of these periodicals published fiction tailored to their specific audience, while larger magazines published a variety of fiction to appeal to a broad readership.
The aims of genre fiction were generally not seen as literary. Rather, such stories were often considered more as entertainment or sometimes as educational diversions aimed at working-class readers. Mysteries in particular served to offer readers puzzles to solve, or at least to entertain them with the author’s ability to create a surprising yet credible solution. Such stories featured subjects such as murder or the supernatural, which might not be considered appropriate in more artistic literature of the time. Because such stories were seen as light or disposable entertainment, they were printed on rough, cheap paper known as ‘‘pulp.’’ Christie’s stories, which relied heavily on formula and puzzle-like crimes to solve, were among the most popular genre fiction being published.
One of the most important pulp magazines of this era was Black Mask , which began publication in 1920. It was co-created by esteemed journalist H. L. Mencken as a purely commercial enterprise. Mencken hoped the magazine would generate enough money to offset the losses incurred by publishing his true labor of love, a literary magazine called The Smart Set Black Mask was successful from the start, and it became the premier publication for mystery writers who worked in a new style that would come to be labeled as ‘‘hardboiled’’ detective fiction. The magazine published early works by writers such as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Erle Stanley Gardner, all of whom would become legends of the mystery genre.
Pulp magazines and genre fiction dominated during the 1920s and 1930s, providing cheap entertainment for readers and a literary proving ground for fledgling writers. With the advent of World War II, however, resources like paper were rationed for use in the war effort. This squeezed small publishers, forcing them to go out of business or increase their prices. Some genre magazines remained successful throughout this time period, such as Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine Astounding Science Fiction But many of the magazines that excelled during the height of pulp entertainment lost their best writers to higher-paying, more respectable publications, and steadily declined in popularity.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 31, Agatha Christie, Published by Gale Group, 2010